I Got To Meet the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans: Here’s the Question I Didn’t Ask Him

Sorry for the clickbait in the title, but this is indeed the question I didn’t get a chance to ask David Johns, who is the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Mr. Johns (Twitter @MrDavidJohns) was at the University of Arkansas to discuss “Paying it Forward in the Black Community”, which was sponsored by the Black Men’s Solutions Summit, a group that partners with businesses such as Walmart and Tyson Foods to provide free, educational, professional, and social development events for African-American men.

Mr. Johns and his message

The presentation coincided with the regularly scheduled time for our class on Progressive Education Policy and I was admittedly skeptical when my colleague Chris Goering suggested that we attend this session with our class rather than hold our regularly scheduled discussion. I wasn’t skeptical because of the topic, educational equity is #1 on my list of concerns about public education. I was skeptical because Mr. Johns works for President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, two of the people who I believe are largely responsible for the plundering of public education by corporations and other private interests. Unfortunately, my disapproval for the federal government’s education policy is so powerful that I am immediately suspicious of anybody who works for it. That’s not fair, but that’s where I am.

However, Mr. Johns changed my opinion of President Obama’s education policy somewhat. He had a powerful message on the importance of love when educating African American students. I believe that love is important when educating all students, and I’m sure that Mr. Johns does as well, though his audience was predominately African American and he heads up an initiative for African American students, so that’s where he went with the message. He reinforced his message by providing examples of black children with amazing academic accomplishments – further dispelling the notion that the success of African American students should be determined by a test score. He spoke of the importance of making sure that “black babies” are enrolled in high quality pre-school programs, which is one of the president’s primary policy goals. He gave the audience some concrete suggestions and places to find resources in order to make sure that African American children have access to similar opportunities as their future white classmates.

As I listened I went from dubious skepticism, to nodding my head along with his presentation, to a feeling of optimism. It seemed that for the first time, I was hearing something from the federal government (of which Mr. Johns is an agent) that really spoke of educational equity. Secretary Duncan has called standardized testing a civil right, though as I’ve said before, the appearance of equity doesn’t make education equitable.

And this is where my question started to form. The one I didn’t get to ask.

I blame myself for not asking the question. Mr. Johns was more than gracious with his time, and there were many members of the audience who had some great questions that he answered very convincingly. I blame myself because it simply took too long for me to formulate the question in my head, and by the time I had it right, time was up. Fortunately, in this space I can pose the question and then expand on why I feel compelled to ask it. So here it is:

“Why do I have to be on a university campus among a predominantly African American audience in order to hear this message?”

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Mr. Johns, but rather a criticism of the way in which the federal government has handled education policies surrounding issues of equity.

Nationally, the federal government praises and promotes the proliferation of charter schools – despite the academic research that says they are no better on average than their public counterparts and in the face of research that shows they are disproportionally segregated. African American students are more likely to attend the “No Excuses” charter schools that are far more about controlling black babies than loving them. Secretary Duncan has used his influence to disproportionately emphasize the importance of standardized tests – leading many low income schools to make drastic cuts to anything other than time spent on math and reading. Perhaps you’ve seen this Washington Post story about a student in Newark, NJ who is destined to spend the vast majority of his time preparing for standardized tests rather than receiving a well-rounded education. Ironically, I received an email during the presentation about the hunger strike in Chicago to oppose the closing of yet another neighborhood school. Chicago currently serves as a model for eschewing love in favor of closing neighborhood schools and opening charters staffed with temporary teachers (i.e. Teach for America). Where’s the love?

That brings me back to Mr. Johns. His message was music to my ears but it isn’t a major talking point in the mainstream message coming from our federal government. Aside from the major policy push towards universal preschool, the message that Mr. Johns brought to this audience is lost in the misguided rhetoric of Duncan. The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans is a commendable effort, but in the bigger picture, it reminds me of Black History Month – a special (and segregated) place in education where we pay attention to what we should be concerned with 365 days a year in the mainstream of public education policy.  Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough to find this White House initiative or find Mr. Johns before this event, but my point is that I shouldn’t have to.  Nobody should.

I have no idea what conversations about education on the highest levels of our federal government look like, but I hope that Mr. Johns and others like him are heard in those conversations. I sincerely hope they have a central and increasing role in deciding future policy.  That would give me some hope for the future of all students in this country, especially those who need far more love and far less technocratic nonsense.